Summitt in Eye of Tennessee Tornado
She's run her program with class and dignity for three and a half decades. She is the winningest coach in the history of her sport, more than Hall of Famer, a legend. She's brought national titles and conference championships and unforgettable players to Knoxville. She's brought honor and recognition. But never shame, embarrassment or controversy – and refusing to play Connecticut doesn't count.
But in the past few weeks, in the process of talking about a young team that she's building toward championship contention – another championship, mind you – she's had to answer questions about the arrest of four players on the men's basketball team, and now Lane Kiffin's sudden, stunning, galling departure from Tennessee after one year as the Vols' football coach.
Her untarnished status makes people want to know what she thinks about all this, the mess that has descended on the Tennessee athletic department. It's not her mess.
Scandal and sanctions and suspensions don't belong anywhere near her program. But now they are right across the hall. And the questions become hers to answer.
Summitt talked about Kiffin's departure on Wednesday as part of her weekly conference call to preview a couple of important SEC games against Florida and Vanderbilt.
"We're all very disappointed he made the decision to leave after one year," Summitt said. "It's been hard for all of us."
When Kiffin was hired, I wondered what Summitt was going to think of the young coach, if she would see him for what he appeared to be -- brash and slick and not entirely sincere. During his time as the Oakland Raiders coach, Kiffin always seemed like a guy whose No. 1 priority was what was good for him. That's not Summitt's style at all. She has no tolerance for people who aren't fully committed.
Summitt said she got to know Kiffin during his brief time in town. That they would exchange text messages after wins and losses.
"I think he's a heck of a coach. We're all just very disappointed with the sudden departure, "Summitt said. "I never want to wish anything bad for anyone. He's going back home. Are we happy about it? No. Obviously it is what it is and now we have to move on and find us a great head coach and put together a great coaching staff."
Summitt said she feels for the players, who reportedly had a heated farewell meeting with Kiffin on campus Tuesday night after the announcement of his departure was made.
"I think it's unfortunate when players choose to go to a certain school and then the coach leaves," Summit said. "I can only imagine how devastated our guys were when they heard the news. I think they really respected coach Kiffin and his staff. It's a tough blow and it takes a while to get past that and right now, people on our campus are not real happy. And rightfully so."
Just two weeks ago, Summitt was offering her support and her sympathies to men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl, who suspended four players arrested during a New Year's Day traffic stop (one player, Tyler Smith, was dismissed from the team).
Summitt should be worrying about her own team, not spending any time serving as a spokesman for a besieged athletic department. She doesn't deserve to be associated with any of this, but she'll answer the questions and do the interviews.
Because that's the thing about Summitt, she's all about team. Which is more than can be said for Kiffin.